Will Midtown dispensaries disappear after legalization, or just go underground?

Ontario’s legal cannabis shops open this year making the future unclear for illegal purveyors that may transform into pop-ups & recreational lounges


Jodi Emery, activist and business partner behind Cannabis Culture

Tania Cyalume, former owner of the once bustling marijuana dispensary on Bloor Street West called Queens of Cannabis, was forced to shut down her storefront in 2017 when she and her partner discovered they had been locked out of the building.

“We were shut down by the landlord. She was afraid of the bylaw officer, so she changed the locks on us,” Cyalume explained.  

Although illegal, the dispensary had been in operation for more than a year and, according to Cyalume, had never been raided by police. 

Despite this bump in the road, Cyalume is still in the marijuana business, operating under the name Bloom, but has tweaked her business model slightly. Instead of having a bricks and mortar location, she holds pop-up events across the city, such as the High Tea Social Club, where customers can pay $25 to attend, and order medicated tea, marijuana-infused cookies and “maybe smoke a joint.” 

This is one solution to the many obstacles facing Toronto’s illegal marijuana dispensaries, which include frequent raids by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and increased difficulty finding a landlord willing to take on the liability of having them as a tenant. 

“A lot of people are doing delivery right now or doing pop-up events or going back underground without any kind of website or storefront,” Cyalume said. 

Still others remain fully operational and continue to reopen after every raid or setback, sometimes in a different location.

Later this year, Canada will formally legalize cannabis across the country. In Ontario, the provincial government will have a monopoly on recreational marijuana, selling weed only through the Ontario Cannabis Retail Corporation, a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Products will be sold at approximately 150 separate retail locations regulated by the government. Forty of those stores could be open by July 2018 in step with legalization, with the remaining opening by 2020.

On March 9, the provincial government pledged $40 million to help municipalities deal with implementation costs related to the legalization of cannabis. Some of that funding will be used to create a Cannabis Intelligence Coordination Centre to shut down illegal storefronts and help fight the illegal supply of cannabis products.

This is a problem for the estimated 60 to 80 privately owned dispensaries in the city, of which a handful are in north Toronto.

According to City of Toronto, Municipal Licensing & Standards, 139 illegal storefronts have been closed since spring 2016, resulting in a total of 611 charges. 

How effective the policing has been until now is up for debate. Raids on dispensaries seem to occur on a regular basis, though many reopened weeks later. More than half of the charges brought against those arrested have been thrown out in court. 

Kendra Stanyon, a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto, has represented several dispensary employees charged as a result of the sweep of raids carried out by the TPS during Project Claudia.

“I really think almost every employee that has been charged, whether they’re a client of mine or not, has ultimately received a withdrawal of their charges,” said Stanyon, who added that dispensary and “medical compassion club” owners, however, are still very much on the hook.

Stanyon said many of her clients have remained open and will continue to for as long as they can, assuming they have the resources and ability to do so. 

“Speaking at least for my strictly medical clients, there is every intention to continue to operate because they see themselves as providing a very necessary, really constitutionally compliant access to affordable medicine for their patients,” Stanyon said. 

She argued that many of her clients have built relationships with their patients and are able to provide more affordable or varied strains of marijuana that may not be available through the new provincial program. 

Cyalume echoed Stanyon’s point that the underground market is likely to offer more competitive prices, which she anticipates will be a few dollars cheaper than the product sold at the Ontario Cannabis Store.

Also, Cyalume noted some dispensaries are able to make “obscene amounts of cash” by selling to anyone over 19 years old, with or without a medical marijuana card, and will likely have the ability to continue to reopen over and over.  

Jodi Emery, activist and business partner behind Cannabis Culture,  thinks there’s a better way. She’s fighting for the privatization of some businesses to allow Toronto to become a leader in the recreational marijuana arena, offering customers places like smoking lounges and private boutiques from which they can purchase cannabis and paraphernalia. 

“Ontario Liberal documents have shown that they know their model won’t undercut the ‘black market,’ ” said Emery, referencing the increasingly active crackdown on illegal dispensaries. “It will be costly to taxpayers, and they know [their model] won’t make money for years to come. It’s doomed to fail."

Emery is hoping to lobby around this issue in the next provincial election, scheduled for June 7. New Ontario PC party leader Doug Ford has previously said he is open to the privatization of pot stores. Ford’s offices did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“We elected Justin Trudeau on this issue,” Emery said of her activism. “We can do it again here.”

TPS spokesperson Mark Pugash isn’t buying the argument that what dispensaries and traffickers are doing is petty crime.

“If you don’t have the authority of the federal government, you are breaking the law,” he said. “If you’re making five and six figures a week every two weeks in cash and you’re breaking the law, you shouldn’t be surprised that we enforce that law.” 

Pugash said the force regularly receives complaints from area residents that range from concerns over security to public health.

“We will continue to be responsive to complaints through the community, and we will execute the law in the way that we feel is the most effective," he said.

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